A cousin and I were studying Engineering in the same college. He was my senior by a (academic) year. When the examinations appeared far away we both read novels, mainly popular novels. Those were the days when Alistair McLean, Arthur Hailey, James A Michener, Harold Robbins, to name a few, supplied a large part of our reading. One day, the two of us were talking away about some of the books we had recently read. My father and this cousin's father were listening to us. But we were unaware of it.
Suddenly a soft voice asks, "ಅವನು ಯಾಕೆ ಬರೀತಾನೆ?" (Why does he write?). It emanated from a diminutive man with unkempt grey hair, clad in a faded white cotton, perhaps khadi, dhoti and an un-pressed, nondescript bush shirt. An expectant pair of inquisitive eyes stared at us from behind fairly thick, glasses. We were stumped. We struggled for an answer. Did not find any, convincing or otherwise. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he/they wrote for money, fame and so on. Did they really have something to say? Perhaps Michener had. Did we get an idea of what the characters in the novel felt deep inside them? The answer surprised me – perhaps Harold Robbins’ characters did. Did the problems the characters faced have any bearing on my life? I later read about literature and art and got a ghost of an idea of what makes good literature. Perhaps this question had a lot to do with it.
That innocuous sounding soft question triggered a lot of things.
The man behind the question passed away recently, aged about 96. When I looked back at the times I had with him and what I had heard about his life, as happens when we lose someone, my admiration for and fascination with and respect for him were all renewed.
My sisters and I called him ಅಣ್ಣಣ್ಣ (aNNANNa). He was the elder cousin of my father, whom we called ಅಣ್ಣ (aNNa), which means elder brother. Being aNNa’s aNNa, he became aNNANNa. He was one of the most well-read people I have met. His formal education ended perhaps at intermediate (12 years of formal education). Though he had to take up a job, (as a ticketing clerk in a touring kannaDa drama company, if I remember right) he kept in touch with his deep interest in literature, mathematics, philosophy and politics (leftist philosophy) and life and the world in general. When younger, he read mathematics in his spare time.
Later, he managed the agricultural lands of a landlord, in a place called kilAra. He bought a small house in Mysore to enable his children to study further. That is when he became more of a regular visitor to our place. He came home and talked to my father about various things. Sometimes the discussions would get really heated and voices would be raised. My mother had to come out and calm them down – “The neighbours will think that there is a fight on!” The discussions were most illuminating.
He was shy and unobtrusive. After talking to my father for an hour or so, my mother would offer him something to drink. Invariably his drink of choice was hot water as he suffered from Asthma. He used to drink coffee, once upon a time. He was an ardent Gandhian. Once he was trying to make a man from his village give up alcohol. That man challenged aNNaNNa “it is easy for you to ask me to give up drinking. Let me see if you can give up coffee!” He never touched coffee again.
It was almost impossible to make a biased, sweeping, generalized statements in his presence. With a sweet and inquisitive smile on his face, he would challenge it. I had to either withdraw it completely or modify it so much that it was no longer as broad or as sweeping or as biased as it once was. I have a feeling that it taught me to weigh my words before I speak. And eventually it made me wary of almost all kinds of generalisations and biases. My father had a very big role in this too. But what aNNaNNa did was different.
He passed away when I was on travel. I was back for the 13th (?) day rituals. At lunch that day, along with the usual “tAmbUla” all those who attended were given a copy of DVG’s “mankutimmana kagga”. I thought that THAT was a befitting way to end those rituals.